More Nature-Inspired Ideas
Be a hunter-gatherer. Dylan Tomine and his family take trips near their Bainbridge Island, Washington, home to search for mushrooms, fish for salmon, and dig for clams. Then they enjoy the fruits of their labor together. "Children have a natural instinct to search for food," says Tomine, who wrote Closer to the Ground, which chronicles their experiences.
Introducing your kids to foraging isn't as daunting as it may seem. Many local nature societies sponsor guided expeditions. If you're leery of venturing into the wild for food, you can provide a tamer but comparable experience at pick-your-own farms.
You don't need to limit yourself to the edible, either. Marina Koestler Ruben, of Washington, D.C., and her 2-year-old daughter collect a variety of outdoor treasures, including pinecones and seashells, then use these finds to make ever-changing exhibits on a designated nature shelf. And when Lauren Beihoffer and her husband, Jim, of Nashville, take their three boys on hikes, they try to set up scavenger hunts to keep them interested. "We give them crayons and paper and ask them to log in the specific birds or leaves they spot," she says. The boys have no idea that they're getting a nature lesson in the process.
Take advantage of today's technology. Although it sounds counterintuitive, one of the simplest paths to furthering kids' appreciation of the outdoors is to play off their affinity for smartphones, tablets, and cameras. David FitzSimmons, a professional photographer in Bellville, Ohio, teaches young children how to photograph nature. He's found that the process of homing in on a subject helps students observe things that may be hiding in plain sight. "A kid might kneel down to take a picture of a fern and discover a centipede, a flower, or an interesting rock," he says. Once your child gets home, encourage him to e-mail his photos to family and friends or help him upload them to an online site so he can share his discoveries.
Join the club. There's fun, and strength, in numbers. That's the idea behind nature clubs, which hold outdoor "playdates" for families. These excursions encourage kids to make up their own games and play independently. Chances are, one of the groups listed on the Children & Nature Network website (childrenandnature.org/directory/clubs) is near you. If not, you can arrange outings to a local or state park with friends and take turns being the "nature parent."
Feel the earth. When Jennifer Hanes, of Austin, Texas, takes her kids, Darby, 7, and Jameson, 4, into the backyard, the three of them like to go barefoot so they can feel the grass under their feet. "When the weather's nice, we play Frisbee in the morning until the school bus comes," Hanes says, adding that skipping shoes seems to make her kids happy and calm them down. There's science to support her observation. A study conducted at Bristol University and University College London (both in England) found that exposure to soil on the skin releases serotonin, a mood-modulating neurotransmitter. So when you see your child splashing in mud puddles, keep in mind that she's not just making a mess -- she's also feeding her soul.